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Freedom's March

By: James G. Basker
September 9, 2011

A review of Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery, by Seymour Drescher.

When it was founded in 1998, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded to the best book on the history of slavery by Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, had fewer than 25 books nominated. In 2010 it had more than 90. If one measures not just books but all genres of scholarship, in all regions of the world and all languages, the increase is even more dramatic. The authoritative "Bibliography of Slavery and World Slaving" lists 379 publications in the 1950s, 4,047 in the 1980s, and an estimated 13,000 from 2000 to 2009.

Meanwhile, in addition to the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale, there are now scholarly centers or museums devoted to slavery studies in Canada, England, Germany, France, and Senegal, as well as the online Transatlantic Slave Trade Data Base sponsored by Emory University and the DuBois Center at Harvard, and 20 or more academic conferences across the globe every year. In 2008, to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the British Government sponsored major exhibitions, public programs, and a website. In the United States there were events and programs too, though overall the commemoration was more muted, as if most Americans had forgotten that the U.S., under President Thomas Jefferson, had also outlawed the transatlantic slave trade—though not slavery itself—on January 1, 1808.

For more than 30 years, Seymour Drescher has been in the vanguard of this burgeoning discipline. After establishing himself as a Tocqueville scholar in the 1960s and '70s, Professor Drescher published his landmark study Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition in 1977, refuting economic determinists' thesis that the moral component of abolitionism was epiphenomenal because slavery was already in economic decline. Drescher demonstrated, to the contrary, that the slave trade and slave labor were still of enormous value to the British economy in the very years of the abolition campaign, and that the British public had mobilized itself and pushed for an end to the slave trade despite the damage it would do to their national wealth. (The book is still so highly regarded it was reissued in 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press, with a new foreword by David Brion Davis, himself one of the pre-eminent slavery scholars of the past 40 years.) Since then, Drescher has written or edited several other important books, including Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective (1986), The Meaning of Freedom: Economics, Politics, and Culture After Slavery(1992), A Historical Guide to World Slavery (edited with Stanley Engerman, 1998), From Slavery to Freedom: Comparative Studies in the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery (1999), and The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor Versus Slavery in British Emancipation (2002)—the last of which won the Frederick Douglass Prize in 2003.

Now in Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery, Drescher has attempted his most ambitious project and made his most valuable contribution: telling the story of how the abolition of slavery emerged as an idea and, eventually, a reality in world history between the 16th and the 20th centuries. Abolition ranges over the intellectual, political, and economic history of a number of empires, countries, cultures and religions, spanning every region of the world, but with a primary focus on the rise and fall of the most infamous slave system of them all, the one that carried more than 11 million Africans into bondage in the New World between 1500 and the late 1880s. Drescher writes with admirable clarity, but the sheer density of information can be demanding. His footnotes (there is no bibliography, perhaps a gesture of friendliness to nonspecialists) provide a running survey of the most important modern scholarship in the field. Throughout its 468 pages, the book is learned, enlightening, sometimes surprising, and ultimately quite moving. Every reader who cares about slavery as a major force in world history or the positive contribution that at least one branch of Western ideas has made to modern civilization, should read this book.


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Drescher starts from a simple premise: it is the rise of abolition, not slavery, that is the extraordinary historical development. In the opening chapter, aptly titled "A Perennial Institution," Drescher defines slavery as "a communally recognized right by some individuals to possess, buy, sell, discipline, transport, liberate, or otherwise dispose of the bodies and behavior of other individuals," and notes that until the 20th century, slavery in various forms had existed "across the globe and over millennia." What was exceptional was the emergence, beginning in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, of what he calls the "freedom principle"—the idea that humankind's natural or normative condition is freedom. Having taken root in northwestern Europe (particularly England, Scotland, France, and the Netherlands), this idea—despite the massive economic power and profound brutality of the Atlantic slave system in which Europeans participated for 400 years—would eventually prevail and become universal. The markers in the progress and ascendancy of this idea include: the emergence of antislavery activism in Britain, France, and the American colonies in the late 18th century; the British and American abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, the British emancipation act of 1833; French abolition in 1848; the decades-long fight over slavery leading to the Civil War and the 13th amendment in the U.S.; the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888; the League of Nations Slavery Convention of 1926; and Mauritania's decree abolishing slavery in 1974. As Drescher observes at the close, "by the last quarter of the twentieth century, antislavery had become the gold standard of civilization throughout the planet."

Drescher presents abolition's examination in four sections. The first, "Extension," covers the late 15th century through the 17th, and tells three intertwining stories. First, the gradual disappearance of unfree labor and the growing awareness of the freedom principle in northern Europe. Second, the widespread existence and dynamic nature of slavery systems Europeans encountered in the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and African worlds. And third, the unique combination of factors—technological, economic, political, and epidemiological—that gave rise to the vast and enormously profitable Atlantic slave trade that thrived for 400 years and transformed the economies of four continents.

A key result, for Europeans, was a "cultural barrier," which enabled them to create and derive wealth from the slave trade and slave labor overseas, while refusing to allow slavery in the home country. This soon hardened into race-based slavery in the Atlantic world, codified in colonial statutes and regulations but left vague or unacknowledged by national governments. Thus in the late 1600s, John Locke could affirm basic principles of freedom in his seminal Treatises on Government while also encoding and legitimizing slavery in the Fundamental Constitutions he drafted for the colony of Carolina.

Fraught with such contradictions, this duality could not "remain in equilibrium," as Drescher puts it bluntly at the opening of the book's second section. "Never before had the asymmetry between the legitimacy of the institution in one part of an empire and its illegitimacy in another been so jarringly juxtaposed." The result was "Crisis," the heading under which Drescher gives us superbly detailed chapters about the tensions and conflicts over slavery that erupted on both sides of the Atlantic during the age of revolution, the half century between the 1770s and 1820s. One chapter each is given to the American, Franco-American, and Latin American colonial revolutions, and another to Great Britain. These are the contexts in which a wide variety of histories played out, ranging from revolution followed by abolition (northern American colonies, Haiti), to revolution without abolition (southern American colonies, many Franco-Caribbean colonies, most Spanish colonies), to abolition without revolution (Britain and its Caribbean colonies). Drescher is masterful at keeping all the variables and contingencies in view, while also demonstrating that some small, quiet events did more to turn the tide against slavery than big violent ones. The 1772 Somerset decision in London, which granted de facto freedom to slaves by forbidding masters from taking their slaves out of England once they had landed, had a broader impact on the Anglophone world, in terms of ending slavery, than the whole of the American Revolution.

By the 1830s, in the wake of British emancipation, the global pattern was shifting. In his third major thematic section, "Contraction," Drescher examines the 90-year period from the 1830s to the 1920s in which, pushed largely by British and American but also French and other advocates, the opposition to slavery grew from separate national efforts into what emerged eventually as an international campaign. The "freedom principle" gradually became a global consensus. Drescher does not gloss over such delays and setbacks as the reversals of the 1840s and '50s in America that galvanized Abraham Lincoln and his supporters, and the resurgence of slave imports in Cuba and Brazil after 1865.

By 1890, however, the antislavery idea has become so prevalent that a convention of Western nations in Brussels could readily agree to denounce slavery as a universal evil—enabling those same nations to add abolition to their rationales for imperial interventions in Africa and the Middle East. Still, as Drescher shows us, the abolition of slavery is one consequence of westernization and Western imperialism that is hard to regret. "With Ethiopia's formal prohibition in 1923," he writes, "the entire world had been closed as a legal source for the slave trade."


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The most surprising section of Abolition is the final one, "Reversion," in which Drescher examines 20th-century systems of slave labor, particularly those under the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, with briefer attention to the Japanese forced labor projects of World War II. By placing the Soviet Gulags and Nazi slave labor system in the historical context of comparative slavery, presenting them as serious regressions in the longer advance of the freedom principle, Drescher leaves us finally with a double lesson. One is positively uplifting: the triumph of abolition has over time fundamentally transformed the conditions of life and the expectation of civil rights for most of the human race. He sharpens this insight by briefly indulging in some "counterfactuals," such as what probably would have happened in the late 19th century had the Confederacy succeeded in leaving the Union with its slave system intact. The second lesson is cautionary: that, as the persistence of sex-trafficking, debt bondage, and child indenture continue to remind us, people remain vulnerable and freedom precarious. No matter how "civilized" it may seem, no society should allow itself to become merely complacent or self-congratulatory.